November 13, 2015By

Sam Ponder talks about how faith and motherhood impacted her career, the perils of social media, and that one time she had to live in her car.

This week I got the chance to join a small panel and interview ESPN’s Samantha Ponder. As the female face of College Gameday, it’s her unique combination of girl-next-door likability and a steely grasp of x’s and o’s that has quickly plucked her into most visible position for a woman in college football. The wife to a former NFL quarterback, mom to a one-year-old, and new spokesperson for XYIENCE energy drinks, Sam’s a busy woman these days, but she took time to spill her thoughts on the perils of social media, keeping romance alive, and that one time when she had to live in her car.

This interview is broken into two parts, the first of which you can read in my “Women In Sports” series for Football.com.

Did you always know you wanted to work in broadcasting? Did you work your way up from a local station?

I wanted to be a broadcaster since I was a little kid. But I never majored in broadcasting or journalism or anything like that. I was a politics/philosophy and economics major for the majority of my college career, and I didn’t technically work for a local station. I worked for the Flames Sports Network, which was the cable network at Liberty University while I was in school, and all of our games aired on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. So I got some exposure from that while I was still in school, and then my first job out of school was at Fox College Sports.

My path to ESPN, the shortened version, is that I interned when I was living in NYC for three years. It was like an extended internship where I became a research assistant. And then after working at Fox for a few years, I started at Longhorn Network which had just been bought by ESPN, so they saw my work there.

That’s the cool thing for anybody who does want to go into that industry…there’s a million different ways to do it. There’s not one path.

As a woman of faith, how has that played a role in your career as you moved up the ladder? 

Brittnee, more than anything else, trying to stay true to convictions or faith meant saying a lot of  “no’s” at a time where I didn’t really have a lot of other options or opportunities.

I got a lot of offers to do other jobs or magazine-type things when I first started in my early twenties that definitely would have put me on the map quicker. I would have gotten more notoriety, and definitely more income. I was living in my car for a little bit, so I definitely didn’t have any money. Specifically for me, I just thought these things weren’t a good representation of who I am. It was rough; I was in credit card debt trying to figure out how to handle being an adult. That was the biggest thing where my faith came in to a practical decision. Do you take these jobs when you don’t have one, or not?

How has your career changed since becoming a mom?

The main way it’s changed is that I’ve made the decision to cut back. Before I had Scout, I was working just insane hours. I was on the road five days a week, every week. When I had Scout I made the decision to cut back and not do as much, so now I’m only on two flights a week. It’s been incredible to spend that time with her at home. She travels with me almost every week; she traveled with me every week last year .

Everyone always talks about balance as a working mom. But for me, it meant deciding I wasn’t going to do as much. So I got off Thursday night football and I took off basketball. Now, I’m literally just doing College Gameday.

For me, at the end of everyday, I thought to myself, “What do I want to be doing? Yes, I want to be a part of this industry and sports broadcasting, but more than anything else I want to be a great mom. I wanna be the best mom I can be.

How do you deal with sideline reporter criticism? 

It’s funny to me the whole, “You didn’t play” thing that you hear all the time because I grew up in a generation where all the girls I knew played sports. And that’s a testament to the women who have gone before us, because I never thought about a glass ceiling or “I’m not allowed to play with the guys.”

This isn’t arrogant, because this is definitely where I peaked, but in middle school I was better at sports than all the guys I played with at lunch. I actually ran into a guy not too long ago that showed me the scar he still had on his leg from when I kicked him in the shins playing soccer in like 5th grade. I guess I shouldn’t be proud of that.

What advice do you have for young girls with lofty career goals outside the norm?

If you think any job, or title, or money or fame or any of that is going to satisfy your soul and make you feel like you’ve arrived, or that you can hang it up, I would say from my experience that you’re sorely mistaken. You get to the top and there’s nowhere to look but back down. And a lot of times the top can be really lonely.

The most important two words my dad has ever told me in terms of my career was “then what.” And I’ve started using that in every area of my life. So you get your dream job, then what? So you find your dream husband, of your dream wife, then what? If you’re thinking this stuff is enough to satisfy you, sometimes it will not be worth the journey.

“Competition” is sometimes a touchy subject amongst women—we don’t always do it well. Do you consider yourself competitive, and how have you tried to compete gracefully with other women? 

Yes, I am competitive. I’ve always been competitive. I think that can be a good thing, it can make each other better. There’s a little path by our house, and I was just telling my husband that when I run, I run so much faster if there’s someone going fast in front of me.

I think the main thing is to keep picturing everyone around you—especially the other women, because this can be a negative thing with women—to picture them not only as beautiful and important, but also as insecure. I’m not talking about them being insecure across the board. But we all have our insecurities, and I think sometimes we forget that maybe someone who we think looks perfect or looks like they have it all together, they’re insecure too.

And that’s really, really helped me.  The more I’ve seen the way other people are vulnerable or maybe a little insecure, or unsure of something about themselves, it reminds me that we’re all human.

What would you say to women with visible careers when it comes to social media? 

I wish I could go back and stay off of it. Not to just stay out of the social media community completely, but in terms of seeing what people said about me. It’s so hard, because especially when you’re first starting out, you want to know what people think of you. And I think that’s only natural.

Some people can read that stuff and not care, but for me in my early twenties that was tough. Especially about my physical appearance, stuff I hadn’t really thought of, that was incredibly negative and mean.

For me, it was about developing a smaller circle of people whose opinions, whether good or bad, were the ones I was gonna listen to. It’s been a couple close friends, my family, and Christian. I’ve kinda chosen those people as my “social media.” An old school version. The things those people say, I take to heart.

You’re on the road a lot. How do you keep romance alive with your schedule? 

We’re apart a lot, but we also talk a lot. Keeping that constant communication really helps us—our relationship started long-distance, so that’s really all we’ve ever known is a long-distance marriage. We also definitely take time to do things we enjoy. We literally schedule stuff like that to make sure we’re spending that time together. That’s why I tell people marry someone with similar interests. Christian and I love the same things. At the end of the day, we both wanna hang out and do the same kind of stuff.

What is your new relationship with XYIENCE? What led you to them? 

If somebody would’ve told me a couple of years ago that I would’ve been promoting an energy drink, I would’ve been like “Realllly? No, I’m probably not.” I’ve always been a latte kind of girl. Calories-wise and sugar-wise, I probably spent half my calories of the day on drinking lattes. So when I saw XYIENCE was no calories, no sugar, those two zeros were a big deal to me, as a mom who is trying to get in shape and also needed some energy.  I drink it. Christian drinks it. Scout is not allowed.

We keep hearing rumblings of outside projects—books, expanding your ProThirtyOne website, etc.—coming up soon. What can we expect from you away from the sideline?

SP: I’m in the process of writing a book. That’s been a slow process, but I’ve been super busy.  And yes, the website and all of that will be this spring. I decided to take off this winter and springtime to work on all these kinds of things. So you’ll hear a lot coming in March/April-ish. I’m excited about that.

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